Puzzle-Solving Interviews: A Brain-Discrimination Problem

Last Updated Jun 6, 2008 1:57 PM EDT

Many companies from Wall Street to Silicon Valley are now using puzzles and riddles in interviews as a way to gauge the problem-solving abilities of potential candidates. I thought I liked this approach, mostly because I love puzzles (and because it seems to be replacing flawed personality tests).

But I've recently started reading William Poundstone's "How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle: How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers," and, in the very first chapter, there's a story that changed the way I think about such mind-benders. They may work well in triaging for some jobs, but they may in fact disqualify those who could be potential business leaders. Granted, not all interviewees are potential management or CEOs. But don't such puzzles discriminate against practical thinkers in favor of creative thinkers? It's not always about finding a creative solution to a puzzle; sometimes you need the person who has the ability to step back and say no to a puzzle, that it's not worth solving. Which brings me to the story from the book:

During the dot-com boom of the 1990s, Microsoft was hosting a job fair at Stanford, and a grad student named Gene McKenna was interviewed and asked in an interview how he would write software to run a microwave oven from a computer. McKenna's answer: "Why would you want to do that?" McKenna would go on to argue that the idea was ridiculous, that you wouldn't want to have to run to your computer to use your microwave, that you wouldn't want to cook remotely because, by the time you got there, the food would be cold. Despite prodding from the interviewer, McKenna continued to say no to the puzzle, that this was a useless feature. I think it was a wise assessment of the puzzle (see the recent success of the Flip video camera for evidence that less is often more when it comes to tech features). Companies need people who will say no to a bad puzzle; ethically, it's invaluable to have people who can identify a problem that's not worth solving. McKenna was not hired.

The puzzle-solving interview does have its merits. If you're hiring, say, a computer programmer, you want someone who can think creatively. But I feel like I've heard of a couple computer programmers who have gone onto lead large companies, which requires a wider-range of mental skills. If we take no off the table, do these puzzle interviews still have the potential to unfairly disqualify top candidates? Doesn't everyone get stumped occasionally? I have four words for you: Petals Around the Rose.

Petals Around the Rose is a dice riddle. You roll five dice in front of a person, and they need to tell you the score. All you can tell them is the name of the game, Petals Around the Rose. You can play an online version here. In 1977, at an early computer conference, the game was a big hit. Some got it immediately; some gave up; some went crazy. One person was so perplexed by it, so obsessed with it, that Personal Computing Magazine told the story of how this youngster stayed with it for hours until he was the last one to get it... on the plane ride home. In an interview, you don't have such luxury of displaying such dogged tenacity on a problem. Luckily, that youngster was not interviewing for a job. His name: Bill Gates.

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.